Pennsylvania has one of the largest veteran populations in the U.S., and for the past decade, a special court in Allegheny County has been providing them with an alternative route through the justice system.
“[Veterans] were just going into any courtroom that their case was assigned to,” said Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola, the court’s founder and supervising judge. After hearing about a veteran court starting in Buffalo, N.Y., Zottola started planning, and the court opened in 2009. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as of 2016 there were more than 450 veteran-focused court programs in the country.
In its infancy, the court in Allegheny County had only a few veterans. Now, the District Attorney’s office estimates as many as 100 veterans are served every year. Approximately 180 veterans have graduated from the program.
Kelly Ferri graduated from the program in 2016, and said the program saved her life.
“[The court] never gave up, no matter what I did,” said the 43-year-old Army veteran. “I did not care about myself and they were like a structure around me.”
Ferri enlisted in the Army in 2001, and deployed overseas that same year, including a stint in Kuwait, where she provided logistical support for operations in Iraq. Looking back, she said she probably wasn’t ready for the experience.
“Nobody prepares you for what you’re going through, no matter what kind of training you do,” she said. “Nobody prepares you that your friends are gonna die. Nobody prepares you mentally for those kinds of things.”
She wasn’t prepared to leave the military early, either. She seriously injured her leg in a car accident, and chose not to reenlist in 2004.
“When I got out, I didn’t really know what to do,” she said. “I didn’t acclimate well. I had really believed I’d continue in military service until retirement, so it was hard.”
The pain medication prescribed for her injury became a habit. Over the next 10 years, she experienced homelessness, and struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. That led to a drug-related charge that landed her in front of a judge.
“My mother was there,” Ferri recalled, “and she was crying, of course, and saying, ‘If she just would have stayed in the military maybe…’”
After the judge heard that she was a veteran, her path through the legal system changed.
“I was in veterans court at that point on,” she said.
Ferri was connected with support groups and transitional housing for her and her 2-year-old daughter. She had to go to veteran’s court twice a month.
“Veterans court is still a court so there are rules and requirements for how a case will progress through the court system,” said Deb Barnisin-Lange, assistant district attorney at veterans court. “When someone comes into the court, they have to agree to the program. It’s not an easy program.”
After entering, the veteran receives an individualized plan that can include drug and alcohol testing, joining support groups, and compliance with treatment plans. When veterans like Ferri first start, they have to go to court twice a month, with less frequent reporting requirements as they progress.
Barnisin-Lange said veterans who commit crimes like homicide and sex assault can’t participate, but those who do go through the process can avoid incarceration by serving their sentences on electronic monitoring.
“Participants don’t avoid mandatory penalties or penalties that are required, but we are a court that is treating people and working with people,” she said. “When [veterans] need carried, the court carries them. But at some point, they find their legs.”
The program wasn’t easy for Ferri. One day in court, she tested positive for cocaine. The judge ordered a deputy to put her in handcuffs.
“Seeing my daughter’s face ... her crying, I finally got to see the pain that I was inflicting,” she said. “They took me to the bullpen, and I sat downstairs for a little bit. And they brought me back up. So the judge said, ‘Are you ready? Aren’t you tired of this?’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, I’m ready.’”
Ferri eventually completed the program, and spoke at its graduation ceremony. She now works with high-risk and homeless female veterans at Veterans Place.
There are other success stories too. Barnisin-Lange said only about 5 or 6 percent of veterans in the program reoffend, compared with a recidivism rate of approximately 66 percent in regular court.
“It’s a big gap,” said Barnisin-Lange. “And it’s for a population where this is the right thing to do.”
“I’m not a veteran myself, but I couldn't imagine the things these guys and gals have seen, have experienced for their country for the rest of us that lived here in freedom,” said Judge Zottola.
Over the years, Zottola has pushed for ways to reach veterans early in the criminal justice system. For example, police in the county are trained to ask someone if they’ve served in the military.
But some say the approach of veterans court should be applied to everyone.
“The thing is, veterans court simply is not that progressive or advanced of an idea,” said Bret Grote, legal director at the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh. “All it is, is exercising an option not to impose incarceration, in cases where it’s a legally permissible option and it’s doing it for a politically popular group to express sympathy for.”
Grote said avoiding jail time and providing social services are good things, but participants will still have a criminal record, which can make it hard to find housing and get a job. Grote wants a justice system that would divert everyone away from incarceration. Veteran Kelly Ferri agrees, for the most part.
“Not every crime committed should be harshly punished,” she said. “But I still believe veterans should get priority.”